It's an exciting time of the year. Classes start in less than 48 hours. Lots of district, building, leadership and curriculum meetings have taken place the past few days. One common theme has been "assessment." Even though our district continues to perform very well on standardized tests, we have been charged to go from "good" to "great" by the administrative team. I can't express in words how exciting I am for the direction our district is going through the boulevard called assessment. I truly believe that transforming assessment practices is the beginning of so many other great conversations and classroom changes. To keep this in the front of our minds, each faculty member is being asked to document his/her assessments from August to December. The documentation is loosely associated with Rick DuFour's three essential questions.

1. What do we want all students to learn?
As educators, we must think about the essential learnings (standards, benchmarks, learning targets, objectives, take your pick!) our students should have as a result of taking our course. These may change slightly from year to year depending the students, but we should be able to identify the "core" ideas and concepts each student is expected to learn.

2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
As educators, we should be able to articulate the connection between the essential learnings and the assessments we administer in our classrooms. This involves more than just printing out the textbook publisher's test and assuming it "fits" our intended purposes. It is also not merely giving students pop quizzes covering the night's reading and moving on when they haven't a clue what they were to have learned. What's the best way to clearly connect assessments and learning targets? Standards-based grading! It's been a hard sell the past few days in my conversations with colleagues, but I look forward to sharing my successes and failures in developing the implementation of this idea further on this blog.

3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty?
As educators, how are our assessment and instruction practices setup to support students who struggle? Are we caught up in the "assess and move on" rut? Or are our assessments created, graded (or not) to inform future instruction? The buzz word commonly used here is "formative assessment." I discussed this idea in many previous posts, including this one.

I really don't feel like I have a firm grasp on #3. Last year, I reported out to my students their successes and failures on quizzes (my bi-unit written, formative assessments) the same way I did on tests, via a 4-point scale per learning target. I keep thinking about Susan Brookhart's comments in her Dec. '07/Jan. '08 Educational Leadership article, "Feedback that Fits" when she said,

"Formative assessment..Here is how close you are to the knowledge or skills you are trying to develop, and here's what you need to do next....Good feedback contains information students can use....For feedback to drive the formative assessment cycle, it needs to describe where the student is in relation to the learning goal..."
My "old" standards-based reporting on quizzes looked like the image below. I gave students written feedback on individual problems and then a score for each learning target assessed correlating to a narrative describing their current state of understanding.
I used to argue that the learning target score was a way of communicating to students how well they were doing in relation to the learning goal. I think it still does make sense in this context, but it does not give them the feedback they need and deserve describing what they need to do next to improve their learning. Looking back, I was giving my students a red, yellow or green light, but never a map to tell them where to turn next. My "next" step is changing the "scoring" into a rubric that instead gives students an idea of where they fit on the continuum of concept mastery.
I hope this continuum and more "student-friendly" wording along the bottom is information students can better use. I will also continue to give feedback on individual problems so that students can understand what they need to do to better understand the topic or overcome their misconception. Last year's practice of grouping students according to their relative strengths and weaknesses (related to the learning targets) will continue so that students not have the opportunity to learn from my feedback, but also from their peers. My goal in this give students more meaningful feedback and less grading. This subtle change, I believe, takes the emphasis away from a "number" and instead on the feedback.

What flaws or critiques do you see with this change in philosophy? How would you react as a student if you did not receive a "grade" (in the form of a number or percentage) but rather a mark on a continuum to complement written feedback on problems?